A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from January 22, 2009
“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money”

“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money” This phrase about government expenditures has become a classic, but who said it first, and when?

Everett Dirksen (1896-1969), a Republican senator from Illinois, is often credited with this saying. However, the Dirksen Congressional Center (see its official statement, below) couldn’t find the quotation. Several people recall that Dirksen said it on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the 1960s, and that Carson often used the line in his opening monologues. The Tonight Show television archives are not easily available, but so many people remember it that the Dirksen association with the quotation probably was popularized there.

The “billion here, billion there” quotation, however, goes back to the 1930s Depression years and even further. “A billion here, a billion there until billions are getting common” is recorded as early as 1917. The January 10, 1938 New York (NY) Times reported: “Well, now, about this new budget. It’s a billion here and a billion there, and by and by it begins to mount up into money.” Another near match for the quote is recorded in the 1940s: “A billion here and a billion there. It begins to run into money.” Numerous printed citations appeared in the 1950s and 1960s.


Wikiquote
Everett Dirksen (1896-1969), Illinois Republican Senator, civil rights proponent.
(...)
Misattributed
. “A billion here, a billion there; pretty soon you’re talking real money.”
Although often quoted, it seems Dirksen never actually said this. The Dirksen Congressional Research Center made an extensive search when fully 25% of enquiries to them were about the quotation. They could find Dirksen did say “a billion here, a billion there”, and things close to that, but not the “pretty soon you’re talking real money” part. They had one gentleman report to them he had asked Dirksen about it on an airflight and got the reply,

“Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it.”

The Yale Book of Quotations
Edited by Fred R. Shapiro
New Haven, CT: Yale University Oress
2006
{g. 206:
Everett M. Dirksen
U.S. Politician, 1896-1969
“A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it begins to add up to real money.”
Attributed in N.Y. Times, 28 Aug. 1975. The Dirksen Congressional Center has conducted an extensive search of audiotapes, newspaper clippings, Dirksen’s own speech notes, transcripts of his speeches and media appearances, and other sources and found no concrete evidence of the senator’s having uttered these words. The principal evidence for the quotation’s authenticity consists of claims by various people that they heard Dirksen say it, but these claims remain uncorroborated. An earlier version appeared in the N.Y. Times, 10 January 1938: “Well, now, about this new budget. It’s a billion here and a billion there, and by and by it begins to mount up into money.”

Google Books
The Quote Verifier:
Who Said What, Where, and When

By Ralph Keyes
New York, NY: Macmillan
2006
Pg. 13:
A BILLION here, a billion there. Pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
This witticism is so routinely attributed to Illinois Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen (1896-1969( that it’s virtually his epitaph. No Dirksen biographer or archivist has ever found a reliable source for this quotation, however. THe Dirksen Center’s director has scoured the senator’s writing, notes, and speeches on the Senate floor looking for the statement. He has read transcripts of Dirksen’s press conferences and media interviews as well as newspaper articles about him, and even listened to recordings of the senator’s observations—all to no avail. Dirksen is on record as having (Pg. 14—ed.) said, “A billion for this, a billion for that, a billion for something else.” On another occasion he said, “A billion here, a billion there...” but not the cleve conclusion. A caller to the Dirksen Center said that while seated next to Dirksen on an airplane, he’d asked the Illinois senator about the quotation so associated with him. “Oh, I never said that,” the man said Dirksen responded. “A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it.” So where did the quip originate? It actually evolved from a common catchphrase that predates the Depression. In 1925, a article included the line “A billion here and a billion there might be piled up...” Thirteen years later, in 1938, the ran this unsigned observation about the federal budget: “It’s a billion here and a billion there, and by and by it begins to mount up into money.” (The Los Angeles Times reprinted that item a few days later.) In 1954 a Saturday Evening Post cartoon by Edwin Lepper portrayed two senatorial-looking men walking past the Capitol building. One says to the other, “You save a billion here, a billion there, and the first thing you know it adds up.” Two years later former president Herbert Hoover was quoted as saying that if the government saved a billion here and a billion there, it would soon add up.

Verdict: A Depression-era gag that gained currency after World War II, landing in a cartoon, in Herbert Hoover’s mouth, and in Everett Dirksen’s.

The Dirksen Congressional Center
“A Billion Here, A Billion There...”
Did Dirksen ever say, “ A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money”? (or anything very close to that?)

Perhaps not. Based on an exhaustive search of the paper and audio records of The Dirksen Congressional Center, staffers there have found no evidence that Dirksen ever uttered the phrase popularly attributed to him.

Archivists undertook the search after studying research statistics showing that more than 25 percent of inquiries have to do with the quote or its variations.

Here is what they examined: all of the existing audio tapes of the famed “Ev and Charlie” and “Ev and Jerry” shows, newspaper clippings in the Dirksen Papers, about 12,500 pages of Dirksen’s own speech notes, transcripts of his speeches and media appearances, transcripts of Republican leadership press conferences, and Dirksen’s statements on the Senate floor as documented in the Congressional Record.

Although Dirksen rarely prepared the text of a speech, preferring to rely on notes, he would jot down a few words to remind him of a particular turn of phrase. For example, in referring to the public debt or excessive government spending, Dirksen would write the word “pothole” to remind him to tell the following story, on this occasion in reference to the debt ceiling:

“As I think of this bill, and the fact that the more progress we make the deeper we go into the hole, I am reminded of a group of men who were working on a street. They had dug quite a number of holes. When they got through, they failed to puddle or tamp the earth when it was returned to the hole, and they had a nice little mound, which was quite a traffic hazard.

“Not knowing what to do with it, they sat down on the curb and had a conference. After a while, one of the fellows snapped his fingers and said, ‘I have it. I know how we will get rid of that overriding earth and remove the hazard. We will just dig the hole deeper.’” [Congressional Record, June 16, 1965, p. 13884].


On the same occasion, Dirksen relied on yet another “spending” story, one he labeled “cat in the well”:

“One time in the House of Representatives [a colleague] told me a story about a proposition that a teacher put to a boy. He said, ‘Johnny, a cat fell in a well 100 feet deep. Suppose that cat climbed up 1 foot and then fell back 2 feet. How long would it take the cat to get out of the well?’

“Johnny worked assiduously with his slate and slate pencil for quite a while, and then when the teacher came down and said, ‘How are you getting along?’ Johnny said, ‘Teacher, if you give me another slate and a couple of slate pencils, I am pretty sure that in the next 30 minutes I can land that cat in hell.’

“If some people get any cheer out of a $328 billion debt ceiling, I do not find much to cheer about concerning it.” [Congressional Record, June 16, 1965, p. 13884].


But there are no such reminders for the “A billion here, a billion there . . . “ tag line as there surely should have been given Dirksen’s note-making tendencies. He spoke often and passionately about the debt ceiling, federal spending, and the growth of government. Yet there is no authoritative reference to the “billion” phrase.

The chief evidence in support of Dirksen making the statement comes from people who claim to have heard him. The Library of Congress, for example, cites someone’s personal observation on the campaign trail as evidence. The Dirksen Center has received calls from people who heard Dirksen say those words, some even providing the date of the event. But cross-checking that information with the records has, so far, turned up nothing in the way of confirmation.

The closest documented statement came at a joint Senate-House Republican leadership press conference on March 8, 1962, when Dirksen said, “The favorite sum of money is $1 billion – a billion a year for a fatter federal payroll, a billion here, a billion there.” [EMD Papers, Republican Congressional Leadership File, f. 25] But the “and pretty soon you’re talking real money” is missing.

In another close call, the New York Times, January 23, 1961, quoted Dirksen: “Look at education – two-and-one-half billion – a billion for this, a billion for that, a billion for something else. Three to five billion for public works. You haven’t got any budget balance left. You’ll be deeply in the red.” [Cited in Byron Hulsey’s “Everett Dirksen and the Modern Presidents,” Ph.D. dissertation (May 1998, University of Texas, p. 226]

Of course, the Dirksen Papers do not document completely the late Senator’s comments. For example, The Center that bears his name does not have his testimony before committees. Their collection of Congressional Records ends in 1965, omitting the last four years of Dirksen’s life and career – he might have employed the phrase only late, although witnesses claim he said it throughout his career. Dirksen’s campaign speeches tended not to produce transcripts, only sketchy notes or abbreviated newspaper accounts. Dirksen also held center stage before the video age, meaning that many remarks, particularly those in campaigns, escaped capture.

Bottom line: the late Senate Minority Leader certainly would have endorsed the meaning behind the phrase, but it is questionable that he ever coined it.

Update, May 25, 2004. A gentleman who called The Center with a reference question relayed that he sat by Dirksen on a flight once and asked him about the famous quote. Dirksen replied, “Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so go that I never bothered to deny it.”

Update, January 15, 2009. We received a call from someone in Pennsylvania who recalled a very clear, even emphatic memory of Senator Dirksen uttering this famous phrase on the “Johnny Carson Show.” This is the second person who shared such a recollection. Unfortunately, a Google search failed to turn up confirmation—apparently the “official” Web site for the “Tonight Show” has video beginning only in 1969—Dirksen died in September of that year.

23 June 1917, Idaho Daily Statesman, “Trillion On Deck,” pg. 4, col. 1:
Congress never appropriates less than a thousand of them (millions—ed.) for any military activity, a billion here, a billion there until billions are getting common.

Google Books
There is One Way Out
By Lewis Williams Douglas
Published by The Atlantic Monthly Company
1935
Pg. 21:
The nonchalant, careless, jovial sloshing of a billion dollars here and a billion dollars there has become so commonplace a part of the daily news that…

10 January 1938, New York (NY) Times, “Topics of The Times,” pg. 16:
Well, now, about this new budget. It’s a billion here and a billion there, and by and by it begins to mount up into money.

Google Books
Round Table: Transcripts
By University of Chicago Round Table (Radio program)
Published by University of Chicago, 1941
Item notes: no.190-214 1941-1942 Nov-Apr
Pg. 17:
REPORTER: A billion here and a billion there. It begins to run into money.

Google Books
Proceedings of the Institute of World Affairs
By Los Angeles University of International Relations, University of Southern California
Published by Published for the Institute of World Affairs by the University of Southern California, 1952
Item notes: v.28-29 1951-1952
Pg. 116:
As someone said, “A billion here and a billion there—it runs into money.”

Google Books
Journal of the American Society of Naval Engineers, Inc
By American Society of Naval Engineers
Published by American Society of Naval Engineers
1953
Item notes: v.65 1953
Pg. 509:
As Paul Hoffman once pointed out, you take a billion here and a billion there and it begins to run into money.

22 January 1955, Washington (DC) Post, pg. 18:
Harman W. Nichols, of the United Press, sends me a dollar for Children’s Hospital pinned in a cartoon from “Taxpayers’ Dollar,” published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The cartoon shows two fellows walking down the street, and caption reveals that the one is explaining in the other: “You save a billion here, a billion there, and the first thing you know—it mounts up.”

7 July 1956, Chicago (IL) Daily Tribune, “Washington Scrapbook” by Walter Trohan, pg. 7:
Former President Herbert Hoover, who has twice headed commissions which recommended means of streamlining the government and saving tax dollars, believes that if the federal government will save a billion here and a billion there it will soon add up to a substantial amount.

21 December 1963, Washington (DC) Post, “The District Line” by Bill Gold, pg. 54, col. 1:
You save a million here and a million there, and the first thing you know it adds up to a good day’s pay.

14 August 1964, Dallas (TX) Morning News, section 1 (comics/cartoons), “Strictly Business” by McFeatters, pg. 14:
“It’s not difficult to become wealthy, Argyle—save a million here, a million there. It soon ads (sic) up!”

6 September 1967, Los Angeles (CA) Times, “Farmers Market” by Dirk Kidson, pt. 1, pg. 4, col. 1 ad:
LIKE the line about two senators talking. One said, “You spend a billion here, a billion there and the first thing you know it adds up.”

Google Books
Federal-State-Local Fiscal Relationships:
Papers and Discussions

By Clement Lowell Harriss, Tax Institute of America
Published by Tax Institute of America
1968
“Symposium conducted by the Tax Institute of America, November 29-30--December 1, 1967.”
Pg. 246:
... only a billion dollars a year — but as one congressman once told me, “You know, sometimes I think we just appropriate a billion here and a billion there, but before I know it, it adds up to a lot of money.”

Google Books
Beyond Coexistence: The Requirements of Peace
By Edward Reed, Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions
Published by Grossman
1968
Pg. 219:
As someone once said, a billion here and a billion there runs into money.

26 August 1975, New York (NY) Times, “Horatius at the Bridges” by William Safire, pg. 33:
As Everett Dirksen used to say of Federal budgets, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it begins to add up to real money.”

Florida Antique Tackle Collectors News, Volume 22 (2008), pg. 20:
I was reminded of the elder statesman from Illinois, Senator Everett Dirksen (back then, we actually had some politicians who were statesmen, but no more). Senator Dirksen was arguing about the cost of a particular bill on the Senate floor. In his unmistakable deep voice that was gravelly and yet smooth at the same time, Senator Dirksen argued, “a billion dollars here, and a billion dollars there, and pretty soon, we’re talking serious money!” I seem to recall that Johnny Carson got some mileage out of a parody of the Senator’s comments on one of his Tonight Show monologues.

The True Facts
Whoa! How many zeros did you say?
by Joe Walther on Sun 01 Jun 2008 01:16 PM EDT
Terrorism isn’t the worst danger we face in this country. It isn’t even close, either. And, while the war in Iraq is a serious problem for us, it isn’t the most urgent. Let me explain.

As a nation, we waste money in quantities that most people can’t imagine. We’ve become so desensitized in terms of government spending that the terms “billion” and “trillion” no longer mean anything.

The numbers are so massive that average citizens, having no real concept of just how big they are, simply shrug at the thought of such expenditures. They may even chuckle a bit whenever people issue those “Golden Fleece” awards over stupid spending.

The late Republican Senator Everett Dirksen (he died in 1969 at the age of 73) used to crack his famous joke about the way the United States Congress deals with spending issues.

“You know,” he’d joke, “a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon we’re into some serious money.”

I remember Johnny Carson’s audience cracking up big time over it. And, that was back in the day when everyone considered a MILLION dollars a lot of money.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • Thursday, January 22, 2009 • Permalink


In the mid-60s, I was a reporter in the Senate Press Gallery (first for the Griffin-Larrabee News Bureau, then with the Boston Globe).  Though I have to admit I could have been convinced it was a “million” rather than “billion,” I did heard Dirksen utter an approximation of this quote.  Every Thursday, after a luncheon meeting of the Republican Caucus, he would come to the Gallery and, as I recall, sit on a table in front of the big mirror (opposite the Gallery’s entrance to the Chamber) and take questions.  He definitely said this once at one of those meetings.  I took it as original to that day, but now I guess he may have been repeating an old saw. If I had to peg the year, I would guess ‘67.

Posted by Matt Storin  on  04/16  at  02:22 PM

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